Joan Fontaine’s star burned brightly, but flickered out quickly.
The Oscar-winner died Sunday at age 96, having enjoyed successful collaborations with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Max Ophuls during her 1940s’ heyday. For a decade, Fontaine was one of Hollywood’s most successful actresses, bringing sophistication and strength to such films as “Suspicion” and “Jane Eyre.” Yet, her film career did not endure into the 1960s, and after the collapse of the studio system she found herself relegated to television and stage work.
Fontaine became equally famous for her tempestuous relationship with sister Olivia De Havilland, who won two Oscars in her own right. Though De Havilland built a stronger body of work and remains better known for her performance in “Gone with the Wind,” Fontaine established an enduring legacy as one of the longest surviving stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Here’s a look at four of her most memorable performances:
As the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller, Fontaine was a revelation. Never less than sympathetic as a young bride driven to the brink of madness, Fontaine helped to ground the story in reality. She brought an impressive intensity to her confrontations with Laurence Olivier as her aloof husband and managed to hold her own while squaring off with a delicious and scenery chewing Judith Anderson as the manipulative housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
The part made her a star, earning her an Oscar nomination, and it’s easy to see why audiences were instantly smitten with the glamorous actress.
Fontaine became the only actor to score an Academy Award for a Hitchcock film in this, her second collaboration with the master of macabre. Oscar voters were smitten with her portrayal of a young wife who suspects that her dashing husband (Cary Grant) is trying to murder her for her money.
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The ending is a cop-out, a concession to studio demands that Grant remain “heroic” on-screen, but Fontaine is note-perfect as she gradually begins to suspect that she has a target on her back.
JANE EYRE (1943)
Fontaine personified the shy and unassuming governess in one of the most memorable adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It’s a film that ably captures the mist and shadows of the book’s Gothic backdrop.
Orson Welles has the showier part as the tortured Rochester, but Fontaine gives a restrained and effective performance as the strong-willed orphan who falls in love. In many ways, her’s is the more impressive feat, as she remains naturalistic and steel-willed while Welles rages.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)
Perhaps Fontaine’s most touching role came in this heartbreaking story of unrealized love. The actress plays a young woman who becomes smitten with a pianist (Louis Jourdan). Their lives intersect in various ways throughout the course of the film, she is jilted, they have a son, they reunite years later, but only the woman is aware of their past romantic history and the man is unable to reciprocate the intensity of her feelings for him.
Melodramatic, atmospheric and unforgettable.